On a recent flight to Calgary, I experienced a little Canadian winter. Some freezing rain had the airport seriously backed up. Here are a few of the highlights:
- Because the weather was getting yucky, my trip to the airport was slow. So I wolfed down my food at Casey's to be sure of being at the gate on time. Shouldn't have bothered, because the crew was 40 minutes late arriving. [I think there is some rule that you can't make a "delay" announcement until there's no choice, even when you know there is a delay. Dumb rule.]
- Once we hit the tarmac, the airline recorded us as departed. We weren't going anywhere for another two hours, however, while we waited for a lost runway position, and then for de-icing. The captain handled this BRILLIANTLY. He told us what was going on with down-to-earth language ('big problems, long wait') and said we could all use our phones until further notice. I called my beloved, who said, "The web site says you departed at 7:05 !?!". Yeah, well, not quite...
- This captain had a lot on the ball. To keep the masses distracted, he explained the process of de-icing, and why there are two different colors of stuff being sprayed around. He also de-fused any anxiety about the First Officer's visual inspection of the wings by telling us it was all "just part of normal procedures, and doesn't mean anything is wrong". He said they would get the in-flight movie going as soon as possible, and try to dig up an extra video for us as well. WELL DONE, I say. He did a great job!!
- The captain also announced that there would be complimentary alcoholic beverages served to those of us mooing in the back. A nice gesture. Too bad it took the attendants more than an hour to get to my row, and I wasn't in the back row. Basically, as far as I could tell, they were already exhausted themselves, and chose not to modify their normal procedure one iota to accommodate the situation, because it would have made more work.
Here's the thing, though: we had now been sitting in this tin can for 2.5 hours at this point. I think most of us would've killed for anything to take the edge off. Some of us had to wait another hour for that. So the niceties may be missing when they toss you your heated beef brisket (see previous post), but heaven forfend they should rush the beverage service.
What's the Point?
Okay, here are the lessons we would like to draw from this. You need to encourage your staff, (or yourself as the case may be) to abandon caution and put the customer first when things start to go wrong.
Give people license to start modifying procedures. When things go wrong -- and they will in every operation -- take the time to extract the learning and share it as widely as possible. What works. What we should try next time. How to cope with your own stress and still look after customers. That sort of thing.
Encourage your staff to act like the captain in this story: show some empathy, talk like a human being, do what you can to alleviate the irritation. Don't pretend it's business as usual.